Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google. Read the transcript below.

People look to a Ranger to solve the crime. If somebody else can’t solve it . . . they figure that Ranger’s going to solve it. It puts a lot of pressure on you, being a Ranger.

—Joe Davis

Today’s Texas Rangers make a hard distinction between themselves and the men who rode alongside Jack Hays, J. M. Fox, or even Frank Hamer. But the hat and the badge—the Ranger mystique—still count for something. How does that Rangerness affect their approach to policing? How does it affect the people they’re investigating, tracking, and interrogating—the guilty . . . and the innocent?

You can read more about the stories in this episode in Michael Hall’s original Texas Monthly feature on, and follow-up coverage of, the “Mineola Swingers Club” case, and in Pamela Colloff’s Texas Monthly series on Anthony Graves, “Innocence Lost” and “Innocence Found.”

White Hats is produced and edited by Patrick Michels and produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, who also wrote the music. Additional production is by Isabella Van Trease and Claire McInerny. Additional editing is by Rafe Bartholomew. Our reporting team includes Mike Hall, Cat Cardenas, and Christian Wallace. Will Bostwick is our fact-checker. Artwork is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.

Archival tape in this episode is from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, CBS News, and KTRK-TV Houston.


[sound of footsteps]

Jack Herrera (voice-over): It’s a hot, late summer morning in Fredericksburg, in the Hill Country west of Austin—at the Texas Rangers Heritage Center. There’s a tall white stone bell tower. And a huge replica of a cinco peso badge that kinda looks like a flying saucer.

And it’s August 6th—Texas Ranger Day—marking 199 years since Stephen F. Austin wrote his letter calling for that first group of frontier rangers.

Two men, looking straight out of the 1800s, are standing in the parking lot, directing traffic and handing out raffle tickets.

[motorcycle revving]

Scott Senior: How you doing?

Man on motorcycle: Pretty good, and you?

Scott Senior: All right. I’m gonna give this to you . . . ’preciate you coming.

They’re wearing thick canvas pants, Western hats, and a star pinned to each of their vests.

Scott Senior: We’re just Ranger reenactors. We do something about every three months, you know, two months.

John Baker: The boots are the square-toed boots, stovepipe tops. Got some spurs, just kind of for a little pizzazz and show. And I like the chink, I like walking and making the noise, ’cause it’s—it’s, uh, it’s cool. [laughs] [spur clinks] It makes it sassy, man, so to speak.

This is John Baker, in the spurs. The guy with him is Scott Senior. They do history presentations for kids about the Rangers and help them picture what life in Texas was like almost two hundred years ago.

Scott Senior: And we kind of help promote things for, for young people beyond they want to go in law enforcement or whatever.

John Baker: The Texas Rangers aren’t bad guys. Yeah. They’re police, they’re good guys. And [I] know back in the day, they were a little more brutal, but you gotta understand what was going on back in the day. Unfortunately, if you were Hispanic, you were Indian, you probably didn’t have much care for a Ranger. Which, in of course our time in society, that’s hard for a lot of people to come to this event because that’s kind of the society we live in. And what we do is kind of dying.

[footsteps, spurs clinking]

[lecturer speaking in distance]

Today, Ranger fans can hear historians telling old Ranger stories and check out the guns that famous Rangers used to carry—even one from a Ranger you heard about in the last episode.

Bob Bailey: Uh, this was a famous captain. He had thirty-seven years of law enforcement—this was Captain Allee; he was a very powerful captain back in his day in the seventies and eighties. He was a man’s man.

The folks here even get to meet a real live ex–Texas Ranger.

Joe Davis: Where you wanna start, just down here?

Joe Davis was a Ranger for 24 years. Today he’s the president of the Former Texas Rangers Foundation. The foundation supports retired Rangers and their families—and they use the Ranger legends to do it. 

Joe Davis: What we see out here now is the Ranger Ring of Honor that has over five hundred names on it of Rangers killed in [the] line of duty.

This is that humongous Ranger badge—and the list of names goes back to 1823.

Joe Davis: We also have what we call Ranger Tower there; it glows blue at night.

And this bell tower—even if you’re just driving through Fredericksburg, you can’t miss it.

Joe Davis: To remind people that law enforcement’s out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, protecting them.

When I started work on this podcast, one of my first calls was to the Texas Department of Public Safety, to see if the Rangers would talk to me about their history. I knew better than to ask modern Rangers to answer for crimes committed by Rangers one hundred years ago in a place like Porvenir. But—I did want to know how the memory of those dark days might affect the men and women on the force today. 

Their spokesman told me there was something I needed to understand. He told me: “There are the historical Rangers, and then there are the modern Rangers.”  

Rangers today make a hard distinction between themselves and the men who rode alongside Jack Hays or J. M. Fox, or maybe even Frank Hamer. But clearly, it matters that they’re still called Rangers.

How does that Rangerness affect their approach to policing? How does it affect the people they’re investigating, tracking, and interrogating? The guilty . . . and the innocent?

From Texas Monthly, this is White Hats: a story of the legendary Texas Rangers and a struggle for the soul of Texas. I’m your host, Jack Herrera.

This is episode five: “Bias Toward Action.”

To get into the mindset of a modern Ranger, I wanted to talk with someone who had spent decades on the force—Joe Davis, the retired Ranger who we met out in Fredericksburg. 

Like many Rangers, Joe’s path to the force started early in his life. He’d seen the Rangers on TV shows and studied them in school.

Joe Davis: When I was fourteen years of age, I actually wrote the head of the Rangers, the director of DPS, Colonel Homer Garrison, inquiring about a Ranger badge. I have that badge right now hanging in my office that he sent me when I was fourteen.

Joe wanted to become a Ranger as soon as he could. But it wasn’t like those old days, when a man with a gun could basically raise his hand and get a Ranger commission. 

Joe Davis: When I became twenty-one years of age, I wrote him again and told him I still had an interest in the Texas Rangers. At that time, he sent me an application to join the Department of Public Safety.

Since 1935, when the Rangers became part of the DPS, they’ve served as the state’s elite investigation unit. The qualifications are stringent. Rangers represent about 2 percent of DPS’s staff. Joe had to spend at least five years as a highway patrolman before he could even apply to be a Ranger.

Joe Davis: When I got my time in, in 1969, they were adding ten Rangers. I took the test and applied and went before the interview board and made it. I was twenty-eight years old at the time. 

But that was just the beginning. 

Joe Davis: And I can say one thing: once you become a Texas Ranger, they start training you and send you to . . . If I went to as many classes that I did in the training with the Rangers, I’d have more than a PhD, probably.

Joe learned how to dust for fingerprints; he learned crime scene photography and how to profile suspects.

And besides the training, Joe says that the Rangers had loaded him up with so much gear, he had to get air shocks on his car to carry the weight. 

Joe Davis: They had a shotgun and then a rifle. Then I had a gas gun. Then I had a vest, a bulletproof vest. I had cameras; I had a fingerprint kit; I had ammunition, extra clothes, handcuffs, transport belts. Everything I needed to do my job.

Joe was first stationed in Austin. And right away, he noticed people treated him differently.

Joe Davis: I could step out of a car to fill up with gas or go in and eat, and people would come up to me and say, “Are you a Texas Ranger?” When you’re a Ranger, you wear the hat, you wear the boots, you wear the badge on your shirt, and you look the part, I guess. It’s just the mystique of being a Ranger and what they’ve done for this state. The people recognize it. And it’s not easy being a Ranger because people look to a Ranger to solve the crime. If somebody else can’t solve it or a deputy or a policeman’s working on it, they figure that Ranger’s going to solve it. It puts a lot of pressure on you, too, being a Ranger.

Despite that pressure, Joe had to rise to the occasion pretty much right away. He’d been a Ranger less than a year when he got his first big case.

Joe Davis: A student from Southwest Texas State, which is now Texas State University, was murdered down there, found in the Blanco River under the bridge and there on Interstate 35. You never forget your first murder case.

This was December of 1969. 

Joe Davis: We didn’t know who that was and didn’t have any information at that time. We began going to the college and interviewing tons of witnesses who might have seen her, and at the high school, and put it out to everybody. Finally got . . . actually, an informant, come to us that this guy told him that he had killed this girl. 

Joe and the sheriff went and arrested the suspect and brought him back to the sheriff’s office. Joe called on his interrogation training. 

Joe Davis: Just laid it on the line with him. You got to tell him while you got him there, and of course you read him his rights, and of course he denied it. We asked him to take a polygraph, which he agreed to do, and he flunked the polygraph. 

Even back then, people understood that polygraphs weren’t reliable as evidence. But Joe says he didn’t really care about the test itself. 

Joe Davis: That’s a tool that’s used [that] you can’t use in court. But if they’re guilty, sometimes they’ll go ahead and confess, knowing that you know they did it, then. That’s what he did. He confessed, and he knew only what the killer knew. He knew what he’d done with the body, where he had taken it.

A sheriff had called on the Rangers, and Joe had gotten it done. 

Joe Davis: We did get it solved, and you’re always glad you did that. The guy got ninety-nine years to do in prison. 

I asked Joe what it felt like to be a Ranger. Did it feel different than being another kind of cop? When he put on that white hat, did he feel like Jack Coffee Hays or Frank Hamer?

Joe Davis: Well, everything changes, from dress to weapons to the way you do your job and everything, but it’s offered with the same thing. It was to protect the people and solve the crimes. And so yeah, you feel like you’re doing your part at the time you’re there.

The time that Joe got there was one of the Rangers’ most controversial eras. During the civil rights movements in the 1960s, Texans—especially in Mexican American communities—were coming forward with real criticism of the Rangers.

There were new calls to abolish the Rangers. Tejano historians and politicians called them “a relic of a primitive age.” And in the state capitol, a Tejano state senator from San Antonio stood where J. T. Canales once had and demanded a new investigation into the Rangers’ crowd control methods.

Then there was the governor’s race in 1972.

Sissy Farenthold, in campaign ad: Are you sick of corruption in state government? I am. And I’ve tried to do something about it. I’m Frances Farenthold, and I’m running for governor of Texas.

Joe Davis: Sissy Farenthold. You remember her?

Sissy Farenthold, in campaign ad: I ask your support in my endeavor to stop the corruption in our state government in Austin.

In her campaign, Frances “Sissy” Farenthold called for disarming the Texas Rangers, or keeping them out of South Texas.

Joe Davis: One of her deals was that she was wanting the Rangers to be abolished. For what reason, I don’t know. But that was her deal.

The Rangers were hardly the only police force marred by scandals during the civil rights movements of the sixties. In places like Los Angeles and Chicago, people were demanding police reforms. 

Joe told me he knew the Rangers, quote, “had some issues,” especially in the early 1900s. But he says they moved past that. 

Joe Davis: If it’s something that happened in the past, that’s the past. Everyone has something in the past, probably, that walks the face of the earth that they’ve done, that they’re not proud of. But you change that, and the Rangers change, and they progress, and they do a better job. They’re better trained, better educated.

By the end of Joe’s first decade in the Rangers, the turbulence of the sixties and seventies had faded. By the 1980s, the war on drugs was heating up. It was the beginning of the “tough on crime” era.

And throughout the eighties and early nineties, the Rangers had big wins and enjoyed glowing headlines—including in Texas Monthly.

In our fifty-year history, we’ve had a big hand in burnishing the Rangers’ legend. We’ve devoted major feature stories to crimes they’ve solved—including one that Joe worked.

One of the magazine’s most iconic covers features a recently retired Texas Ranger named Joaquin Jackson, in black and white, looking sturdy and tall, squinting out from under his white hat, with his long gun at his side. The story in that issue—“The Twilight of the Texas Rangers”—describes an identity crisis within the modern Rangers as old hands like Jackson handed in their badges.

Joe retired the same year Jackson did, in 1993.

Today, the Rangers are still a small, elite force with a bunch of different roles. They work cold cases and investigate wrongdoing by public officials. They look into cases where officers shoot people, or where people die in jail. The Ranger Reconnaissance Team is a tactical unit that works on the border and conducts covert operations.

But the Rangers’ main job is to help in small towns and counties whose officers don’t have a lot of experience or training—or a crime lab. 

To understand how the Rangers’ legacy affects how modern Rangers do their jobs, I want to bring in someone who knows more about criminal justice in Texas than anyone else I know: a colleague of mine at Texas Monthly, Michael Hall. Mike has written a number of those Texas Monthly features about cases the Rangers worked, and he’s seen, in his own reporting, how the Ranger legend squares with their work today.

Here’s Mike.

Mike Hall (voice-over): I’ve been reporting on criminal justice in Texas since around 2000. I’ve covered big city cops, small-town sheriffs, prison guards, and the Rangers. And one thing I’ve learned—they all have their own way of doing things.

And—there’s one recent case I think will tell you a lot about what the Rangers do today and what makes them different. And where that Rangerness—the thing that sets them apart—really helped crack the case.

Mike Hall: Hi, Bill.

Bill Wirskye: Hi, Mike; how are you?

Bill Wirskye is the first assistant DA in Collin County, in the North Dallas suburbs. He told me that he’s seen how the Rangers’ mystique can be useful.

Bill Wirskye: Yeah, we were working on this case out of Coppell, and we had to knock on a lot of doors. I noticed when I was out with the local police officer, even an FBI agent, the door would open, [and] there’d be some skepticism. We really had to work hard to talk our way into the living room. But when you went out with the Texas Rangers, with the white hat, the fancy guns, the hand-tool leather belts, the door would open. And whether it was a man, woman, old person, young person, everyone would just kind of melt.

Bill says it helped him a lot—they had a way of cutting through the red tape . . . and getting things done.

Bill Wirskye: There was a suspect that was looking pretty good, and we needed some DNA done. And instead of the normal six- to eight-week turnaround in the late nineties for DNA, what shocked me was, a DPS helicopter flew up from Austin; set down in a field in Coppell, Texas; got the DNA samples and whisked them back to Austin; and we had almost overnight results. I said to myself, as a prosecutor, “Man, I need to work with these guys more often.”

And in 2013, he got his chance.

Announcer: This is CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley.

Scott Pelley: Good evening. Veteran prosecutor Mark Hasse was on his way to work this morning. He parked where he usually did for a short walk to the courthouse. Witnesses say that masked men intercepted Hasse and shot him to death.

Bill Wirskye: It was just simply unprecedented. We don’t have a lot of murders of prosecutors, thank goodness. It’s just unprecedented. Prosecutors, including myself, we all wondered if we had a target on our back. The case very quickly went cold; all the leads petered out. And then about two months later, Mark Hasse’s boss, Mike McLelland, he and his wife, Cynthia, were found gunned down in their house Easter weekend 2013.

This was a huge mystery, a triple homicide involving public officials—prosecutors. And multiple law enforcement agencies working the case. Bill was chosen to lead the task force.

Rumors spread that the Aryan Brotherhood or a Mexican drug cartel was responsible. The entire DA’s office was put under armed guard. One of the few leads investigators had was that a white Crown Victoria had been caught on video approaching and leaving the second murder scene.

This is exactly the kind of case Rangers work today. A serious, high-profile crime in a rural community without a bunch of investigators to solve it.

Almost an entire Rangers company—sometimes more than twenty officers—flocked to Kaufman County, along with a crew of FBI agents.

Bill Wirskye: So we would brief every morning and everybody would get their assignments. And what I noticed very quickly—how different agencies have different cultures, a different ethos; how they attack the same problem differently. And this is not a shot at the FBI, because I’m a huge fan of theirs as well. But the FBI agents would have their list of interviews. They would leave the briefing, head over to the closest computer, and start doing computer searches to try to see who they were dealing with, where they lived. The Rangers, on the other hand, once we called break at the morning briefing, were out the door with a sheet of paper in their hand to their trucks, barreling down the back roads of Kaufman County, just to go knock out the interview. It’s not that one approach is better or one is worse, but when you talk about that aggressive “one riot, one Ranger” mindset, that proactive nature was just heartening to see.

Leaders of the task force started pairing off Rangers with FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies, to make their contrasting approaches work for the investigation.

Bill Wirskye: The Ranger could be super proactive. The FBI agent could make sure we weren’t missing anything on Google or the computer databases that law enforcement uses. The locals had some local knowledge and new people in the community.

One Ranger, in particular, was key to solving the case. His name is Dewayne Dockery, and he went with a deputy to question a suspect named Eric Williams. Williams had once been prosecuted by both of the dead men for stealing computer monitors from a county office. And after the first murder, DA McClelland had been certain Williams was the killer. But the task force never had any proof.

The two officers went to Williams’s house, and he invited them in. Dockery noticed a gun sight sitting out in the open. Williams said the sight had never been used with a gun, but Dockery noticed it had oil on it. That meant it had been on a gun—and then been cleaned. And then Dockery saw something else: it looked like a TV remote, but he recognized it to be a HeatSeeker 3500, a device that uses infrared technology to detect body heat from faraway targets.

Bill Wirskye: And those little details, that little discriminating, experienced Ranger eye, was rolled into our affidavit for the search warrant.

The warrants led investigators to the title to a white Ford Crown Victoria. Then they got another tip, about a secret storage space where Williams kept that car hidden.

CBS News reporter Manuel Bojorquez: Investigators searched the storage facility Saturday, about ten miles from where the murders happened. They pulled a white Crown Victoria from one unit. A law enforcement source says they also found multiple guns.

Dockery—along with everyone else—had helped solve the biggest murder in Texas.

Cases like this are why the Rangers get so much respect around the state today. They have more training and better equipment than small-town law enforcement. That’s part of it. But there’s also something hard to define, that Ranger swagger left over from the old days.

And sometimes, it gets them in trouble.

Jack Herrera: (voice-over): That bias toward action that Bill talked about—it can be one of the Rangers’ biggest assets. And our criminal justice system puts a lot of trust in a Ranger’s judgment.

But as Mike has seen, there are times when “one Ranger” may not be what a case needs.

Mike Hall (voice-over): I got my own up-close look at a Rangers investigation not too long ago, while I was reporting on a case in East Texas.

From 2005 to 2010, Texas Ranger Philip Kemp was the main officer investigating and testifying in court in a bizarre case. Four kids claimed that a group of adults—including their parents—had orchestrated an elaborate and entirely perverted conspiracy.

The kids claimed that the adults had organized what they called a “sex kindergarten” in a trailer outside Tyler and a “swingers’ club” in a town nearby called Mineola. The kids said they’d been drugged and forced to dance and have sex with each other. It was the worst alleged child sex ring in Texas history.

“Alleged” is the operative word here, because there was no physical evidence—no DNA, no videos—and there were no adult witnesses to the alleged crimes. The only thing the investigators had was the word of the kids—three siblings and their aunt, all between ages five and eight.

In some ways, it was another textbook case for the Rangers. Very complex, very sensitive, and very rural. But, in fact, the local police in Mineola, plus an FBI agent, had already looked at the case and thrown it out.

The case is a little complicated, so bear with me. Three of the kids had been removed from their biological mom and placed with a foster mother, a woman named Margie Cantrell. Cantrell was a longtime foster mother who had a history of physically and mentally abusing foster kids in California. She’d only just moved to Texas.

And Cantrell knew: if a foster child is alleged to have suffered abuse, it’s more likely that the foster parent will receive more money from the state of Texas to take care of them.

It was only after three of them went to live with Cantrell that the children started making these wild allegations against their parents and the other adults.

I’m going to cut to the chase here and reveal something I learned over the course of my reporting: Cantrell was a charismatic con woman who invented this child sex ring so she could make more money from the state. She badgered the kids, putting stories in their heads.

All she needed was an unwitting accomplice to guide her through the legal system. In Ranger Kemp, she found the perfect helper.

I was able to get tapes of Kemp’s interviews with the children.

Philip Kemp: Where you wanna sit; right there? Cool. Well, I’ll sit right over here.

Girl: And here’s your bottle of water . . .

Philip Kemp: Yes, I like a lot of water. Cool. All right. Well, do you know my name?

Girl: Walker, Texas Ranger.

Philip Kemp: Ah-hah. I’m not Walker.

Girl: Yes you are!

Philip Kemp: Just call me Philip.

Kemp had been a Ranger for a year and a half. Before that, he had been a state trooper for eight years and a highway patrol sergeant for eight more. He had led only one child abuse investigation before, and he had never interviewed a kid under ten, nor did he have any training in how to do it. And the key to this case was the kids.

I interviewed Gabby—one of the oldest of the children—several times about her interviews with Kemp. This is back in 2014, when she had just turned sixteen.

Gabby: Basically, my mind was blown. Like, they literally blew up my mind and then planted stuff in it.

Mike Hall: How did that begin? When did they begin to plant stuff in your mind?

Gabby: I want to say when Philip Kemp started coming into the picture. When they started actually asking me questions about it.

Mike Hall: What was—was there a point where you said, “I gotta go along with this”? I mean, what was the point where—you did—but what was the point at which you said, “Okay, I give in; I gotta do this”?

Gabby: Basically when they kept asking me the same questions over and over again after I had already answered them. And I figured, they’re not going to let me go home until I say what they want me to say.

And instead of interviewing the kids by himself, or bringing in an expert, Kemp relied on another interview partner.

Philip Kemp: And who is this?

Girl: My mother.

Philip Kemp: Your mother. And you are . . .

Margie Cantrell: Margie Cantrell.

Philip Kemp: Okay.

Margie Cantrell, the foster mom. Any child expert will tell you that’s a huge conflict in a case like this.

Watching these interviews, you see Kemp sitting to the side while Cantrell cajoles the kids, holds their hands, whispers to them.

Philip Kemp: But you said you’d be able to tell your mom some of the bad stuff? Well, I tell you what we can do: if you wanna turn your chair so you just look at her, that way you don’t have to look at me . . .

Margie Cantrell: Bye-bye.

Philip Kemp: If you can tell her some of the bad stuff. I’m not even here. I’m just sittin’ over here.

Margie Cantrell: Okay, you don’t even look at him, you look at me.

When the kids finally do start talking, the world they describe is vague, or sometimes incredibly strange. One girl says that the adults wore white face paint and black witch outfits. Here’s another girl telling Kemp about—well, just listen.

Philip Kemp: Now, when you would go to the club, how would you dress; what would you wear?

Girl: I was a . . . witch.

Philip Kemp: You were the witch? Well, what would y’all do with the costumes?

Girl: We would go on TV. [indistinct]

Philip Kemp: You can tell me.

Girl: Would . . .

Philip Kemp: You would what?

Girl: I would fly around on a broom. [indistinct]

Margie Cantrell: And what did you have to do?

Girl: I did the flying and go, “Hee hee hee.”

Philip Kemp: Were you on the ground or in the air flying?

Girl: Air.

Philip Kemp: In the air? How did you get in the air?

Girl: A broom.

Philip Kemp: Your broom would fly you around?

A broom . . . in the air . . . 

Meanwhile, Kemp never visited the supposed sex kindergarten, and he never interviewed any of the adult “swingers” who supposedly witnessed these shows.

The case went to court—four times. In separate trials, from 2008 to 2010, the kids testified against their parents. That testimony sent four people to prison for life.

But in 2011, with three more time-consuming, expensive trials still to go, the DA made a deal.  Six of the seven would be released in return for each of them pleading guilty to injury to a child. But one of the adults never got offered the deal. His name was Dennis Pittman. And he remained in prison until the summer of 2021, when he died there from complications due to COVID.

Three of the four kids eventually recanted their testimony. They said Cantrell put ideas in their heads and Kemp put words in their mouths.

I’ve reported on the fallout from Kemp’s investigation for the last fifteen years. And except for answering some questions by email in 2009, he has never agreed to talk to me. 

I emailed him again to request an interview for this show. He wrote back and said, quote, “I am retired after 32 years and all you intend on doing is vilifying me on this like you always have, so I do not feel the need to subject myself to that.”

I do think Kemp’s intentions were good. I think he wanted to do what the Texas Rangers were supposed to do: bring justice.

Jack Herrera (voice-over): When I asked some former Rangers why they still wear those hats and silver stars, one of them told me something I didn’t expect. He said when a suspect sees one of the white hats walk into an interrogation room, they begin to sweat. Today, Rangers are famous for pulling confessions from suspects that no one else can crack.

Joe Davis told me that Rangers perfect the art of interrogation through years of training. He told me how he gained a suspect’s trust. 

Joe Davis: I just asked him, then, “Okay, we need to clear you up. If you didn’t do it, you don’t have nothing to worry about. But we’re here, and I’ll work just as hard to prove you innocent as I will guilty.

And how he had to be careful not to ask leading questions.

Joe Davis: We don’t give them any information like that. We get that from them. “Where’d you pick her up? Where did you take her? What did you do to her after you got her down there,” and so forth. Let them tell us, even though we may know it. We don’t want to put words in his mouth.

But Rangers are still renowned for getting people to talk, and their most famous interrogator is a Ranger named James Holland. He retired in 2021 after working more than two hundred cases. He got a reputation as a “serial-killer whisperer.” His most well-known case started in 2018, when he began interrogating a 78-year-old man named Samuel Little. Holland spent around seven hundred hours with Little, who eventually confessed to 93 murders, all over the country, all the way back to 1970.

When a reporter asked Holland how he did it, he said his approach was simple—he listened and said whatever it took to keep Little talking. He bought him milkshakes and Dr Pepper and played to his ego.

There was a time when the Rangers were known for using violence to get a confession. In the Canales hearings, witnesses gave testimony to Rangers torturing them during an interrogation. 

In an interview with Texas Monthly in 2007, that Ranger legend Joaquin Jackson listed all the interrogation tools that the courts had taken from Rangers. “But,” he said, “they never took away trickery.”

New reporting this year, by the Marshall Project, also shows that Holland lied to suspects he interrogated—which is legal, but the reporting suggests that some who confessed to Holland might be innocent.

Doing whatever it takes to get justice, when a Ranger knows he’s got his man—that’s another tradition that goes back to their earliest days. But what happens if they’ve got the wrong man? 

Here’s Mike again.

Mike Hall (voice-over): I did get to talk with one other person who’s gotten to see a Rangers’ investigation up close. Not as a partner in the investigation—but sitting on the other side of the interrogation. 

ABC13 reporter Foti Kallergis: A house fire in Somerville ultimately revealing an unthinkable mass murder. Six members of the Davis family, most of them young children in their home. It was a living nightmare.

On August 18, 1992, firefighters responded to a blaze in tiny Somerville, Texas, halfway between Austin and Houston. Inside they found the bodies of Bobbie Davis, her sixteen-year-old daughter, and her four grandchildren. They had been knifed, bludgeoned, and shot. The house had been set on fire.

When law enforcement staked out Davis’s funeral, they noticed a young man whose face was covered in bandages. His name was Robert Carter, and he was the father of the youngest victim. Later that day, four Texas Rangers interrogated him.

Carter denied having anything to do with the murders. But after many hours of questioning, around 3 a.m., he finally said he knew who committed the crime. It was his wife’s cousin, a man named Anthony Graves.

Carter said that on the night of the murders, he met up with Anthony and drove him to the Davis house. Then, Carter said he waited in the car while Anthony went inside, murdered everyone, and set the house on fire.

Two warrants were issued: one for Carter and one for Anthony. They figured that the bloody crime scene with six victims had to be the work of more than one person.

At the time, Anthony was 26 and lived nearby in Brenham.

He was arrested and taken to the local police station. Nobody told him why he was there until a justice of the peace walked in, accompanied by two police officers. The JP read him his rights.

When I talked with Anthony earlier this year, he told me he’d been dumbfounded when he learned what he’d been charged with.

Anthony Graves: Capital murder? Who got killed? Who, what? I don’t even know. Murder, me? I’m just so confused because I’m thinking, “You might just be talking about a traffic ticket that you got wrong. It can be cleared up, but now you telling me I’ve been charged with capital murder? I have no bond. I don’t even know who died. I don’t know nothing, but yet I’m charged with capital murder. This is crazy.

Then Anthony was taken to an interrogation room, where four Texas Rangers waited to talk to him.

Anthony Graves: And the Texas Rangers step up and they say, “Well, would you like to talk to us?” And I’m like, “Of course, I want to talk, because this is a mistake.”

Mike Hall: Let me ask you, when you first saw them, what did you think about the Texas Rangers? You knew about them. Right? You grew up hearing about them.

Anthony Graves: Right. And I didn’t think anything, for the simple fact that I hadn’t done anything. “Oh, well, I’m innocent. So it is going to be a good match. They’ll find out I’m innocent. I can go home, because they’re the Texas Rangers.” And they had me at a table, and they were just standing there, and they were talking to me. Asking me what happened and telling me that they going to put all this on me and that I’m in a lot of trouble. I had to help myself. The only way I could help myself, I need to talk to them. And I’m like, “I don’t even know what you guys are talking about.” And then they just went into me and called me everything but the child of God. I was a murderer. I was this. I was that. And I’m looking at—”You are the Texas Rangers, and this is how y’all operate?”

On the night they were asking about, Anthony said he’d been hanging out with his brother and sister at their mother’s apartment. Then he spent the night there with his girlfriend.

Anthony offered to take a polygraph, so the Rangers took him to Houston. They told him he failed the test, and they interrogated him some more.

Anthony Graves: And now he’s trying to get me to just tell him what happened. But I’m crying, and I’m starting to tell him, “I don’t know nothing about this. I don’t know nothing about this.”

Finally, after a few more hours of this, one of the men—the lead investigator, a sergeant named Ray Coffman—approached Graves and looked him in the eye.

Anthony Graves: And he looked me in my face and he told me, “Mr. Graves, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t believe you had anything to do with this case. But if you don’t put nothing on Carter for me, we going to put this whole case on you. And if you are actually innocent, don’t let no grass grow on your grave.” And he looked at the other officer and said, “Get him out of here.”

The polygraph had started at four, and they interrogated him until one-thirty or two in the morning.

Mike Hall: Had you had anything to eat?

Anthony Graves: I hadn’t had anything to eat, and hadn’t had anything to drink, any of that.

Mike Hall: So you were probably feeling pretty weak and pretty desperate.

Anthony Graves: I was feeling pretty weak, but I wasn’t desperate. I was a man and I was going to be a man, and no other man was going to make me lie on myself. I didn’t care if he wore a big hat and a gun or if he wore twinkle-toed shoes with a Santa Claus hat on.

Carter recanted what he said about Graves—several times, even in front of the grand jury. The night before Anthony’s trial, Carter told the prosecutor that he acted alone.

But the Rangers seemed to have made up their minds.

At the trial in 1994, the prosecutor used Carter as his main weapon. When Ranger Coffman got on the stand and was asked if Carter had consistently said Anthony was his partner in crime, he said yes, except for that one time in front of the grand jury.

Anthony was found guilty and sent to death row.

Carter was executed in 2000. But strapped to the gurney, moments from eternity, Carter said: “It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it.”

In 2002, a journalism professor and lawyer at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, named Nicole Cásarez, began a thorough investigation of Graves’s case. She and her students interviewed almost one hundred people. And in 2006, a federal appeals court threw out Anthony’s conviction because of Carter’s lie.

Over the years, Ranger Coffman had plenty of opportunities to correct the record in Anthony’s case. At a hearing in 2006, Coffman said that “several times” he had heard Carter say he acted alone, as early as 1992. I reached out to Coffman to ask for his comment for this story but never heard back.

Anthony Graves: The Texas Rangers are no different than a bunch of corrupt cops on the local beat. I can tell you that, because I witnessed it. I experienced it firsthand. I seen them lie, cheat, steal to seek a wrongful conviction. And yet I have not seen them being held accountable at all for it, and it will continue to go on until we remove this myth of who they’re supposed to be and hold them accountable for who they should be.

In 2010, a special prosecutor was appointed to look into Anthony’s case, with a team including one former and one current Texas Ranger. After several months, they came to a conclusion: Anthony was innocent. There was zero evidence that he was involved. In October of 2010—while Anthony was in a county jail awaiting a retrial—Texas Monthly published an in-depth story about his case, written by Pamela Colloff. Less than a month later, the district attorney finally dropped the charges against him. Anthony was released.

The state paid Anthony $1.45 million for his years behind bars. He started a foundation to help other wrongly convicted inmates. He wrote a book and produced a podcast—both called Infinite Hope—to share his story.

He also filed a grievance against the prosecutor in his trial that led to him being disbarred. But two of the four Rangers who interrogated him—Earl Pearson and Ray Coffman—each went on to become Ranger chiefs.

Mike Hall: Did you ever get a chance to say anything to them?

Anthony Graves: No, but if I was to say something to them today, for whose still working as a Ranger, I would say, “Get out the business. It’s not for you. You should be working at Walmart. Innocent people are coming before you, and you’re sending them to death row. It is not for you. Get out the business.”

Them being the elite of the elite, that is just a myth that they’ve been riding on. And because they’re not putting in the work, you’re talking to me about how I lost eighteen and a half years of my life, when the Texas Rangers were the head investigation of this case.

We’re all subject to confirmation bias—even journalists. We all take what we see and hear and—if we’re not careful—allow it to reinforce what we already think. But of course the stakes are higher when it’s done by law enforcement, whether it’s a cop or a Texas Ranger. And the truth is, we expect more of our Texas Rangers. Partly, that’s because they get more training, more gear, more money. 

And partly, it’s because of the myth—and the leeway we give them to operate independently and to act upon their instincts. And that is a tradition that dates back to the very first Rangers who wore that badge.

Jack Herrera (voice-over): I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about that tower in Fredericksburg—the one at the Rangers Heritage Center that Joe Davis keeps burning blue all night to send a message. 

Joe Davis: Law enforcement is out there seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day so that you can go about your business without hopefully being harmed or killed. Because if they’re not out there, you’re not going to leave your house.

Talking to Joe, I realized that this is part of the potency of the Ranger legend. A lot of officers, like Joe, have this idea that cops are the only thing between order and chaos—that “thin blue line” that protects us all from violence. If that’s something you believe, then the Rangers are the perfect symbol: in parts of their history, they really were the only thing standing between Anglo settlers and a Comanche lance or Mexican rifle. 

Of course, not everyone thinks of cops that way. 

Since the George Floyd protests in 2020, the battle over whether or not we really need police to keep us safe has spilled out into the open. 

And that movement has coincided with a new reckoning with the Rangers’ legacy, just ahead of their two-hundredth anniversary.

That’s next time on White Hats.